At 6.15 on Friday evening, Henry VIII (played by the bloke who impersonates him at Hampton Court) led a procession of local politicians down the steps of Greenwich’s council offices. In front of a crowd of a few hundred people, they announced that Greenwich had been accorded royal status by the queen in honour of its ‘longstanding royal connections’. It’s only the fourth borough to be given the title (after Kensington and Chelsea, Windsor and Maidenhead, and Kingston upon Thames), and the first for more than a hundred years. It’s almost surprising it didn’t happen earlier: Greenwich is the birthplace of Tudor kings, home to Wren’s Royal Naval College, the National Observatory and the National Maritime Museum (where in the summer David Starkey will be curating an exhibition called Royal River: Power, Pageantry and the Thames), and a Unesco World Heritage Site regularly used by Hollywood to shoot historical scenes of a vanished England.
But the borough, the tenth most deprived in London, is a lot bigger than ‘historic’ Greenwich. The council offices are in Woolwich Town Hall (the metropolitan boroughs of Greenwich and Woolwich were amalgamated in 1965). After the royal charter was delivered, bursting pomegranates of fireworks, exploding in time to ‘Rule Britannia’ and ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, illuminated a landscape of mean Victorian houses and dull 1960s blocks, betting shops (three in a row), a pawn broker, The African Cash-and-Carry, the boarded-up remains of a pub destroyed in the riots.
I asked a publican in Woolwich what he thought of the borough’s new royal status. ‘Maybe it will push up property prices,’ he said. ‘It could be good for rebranding the area,’ a fruit-and-veg seller thought. ‘Regeneration’ is the council’s watchword (they refer to the riots as ‘the unpleasantness’): Europe’s largest Tesco is being built in Woolwich; a new housing development of ‘Manhattan Style Apartments’, behind the walls of the Arsenal, hopes to attract the Canary Wharf crowd.
Yet Greenwich wouldn't be Greenwich if it weren't for Woolwich, despite its lack of tourist attractions and scant mention in Lord Sterling’s ‘case for a royal borough’. Henry VIII had his pleasure palace at Greenwich, but he established the dockyard to build his giant warship Henry Grace à Dieu, the largest in Europe, at Woolwich. (The dockyard closed down in 1869, half a century after the HMS Beagle was launched there.) The grandiloquent 18th-century Painted Hall at the Royal Naval College in Greenwich celebrates the expansion of Britain’s empire, but the soldiers who won those wars were barracked at Woolwich, and their armaments were made at Woolwich Arsenal – a sprawling, secretive mini-city with tens of thousands of workers, its own timetabled railway and canal. Occasionally weapons would accidentally explode, killing workers and lighting up the sky over South-East London. So in many ways it was fitting that the fireworks on Friday went up over Woolwich, the back-room workshop to Greenwich’s front-of-shop window display.